WASHINGTON -- The only thing that stands in the way of the Washington Wizards making their return to the playoffs official after a six-year absence is the Boston Celtics.
Tonight's game is just the latest in which a team can punch its ticket to the postseason at the Celtics' expense. We saw Toronto do it, followed by Chicago.
But as much as the Celtics players want to win, at this point every loss is in itself a small victory of sorts for Boston (23-51).
Having been officially eliminated from the playoffs, the best thing for the Celtics is to inch as close to the top of June's NBA draft as they can. And that means padding a few more losses on to a record that's already among the worst in the NBA.
But this is a prideful group of players that includes veterans such as Brandon Bass and Rajon Rondo, who've shown no signs of throwing in the towel.
And in the case of Bass, one could make a strong case that he's actually a better player now than he was a year ago this time.
"You can point to each guy and say there's one or two things they're a lot better at," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "The key is . . . being great in what you do well, first and foremost. Your strengths have to stand out. Your strengths have to be perfected. I look across the league at some of these really good teams and great players. You give a guy an 18-footer and he makes it every time. You give a guy an open 3 and he makes it every single time. That's where a good shooter becomes great."
The Celtics players aren't there yet, but there's no mistaking the progress that has been made this season . . . even if their record doesn't reflect such improvement.
And so they continue to plug along, being the final hurdle for some teams to cross in order to get to that next level of competition - the playoffs.
To the Celtics' credit, they haven't just shown up to play the role of patsy. They actually compete and do enough things to make the games interesting, but not enough to win.
Stevens will be the first to tell you he's had more than his fill of hard-fought losses this season and the silver lining that such games represent.
"We're not in the business of hanging in," he said. "We can't be in the business of hanging in. We have to get over the hump and do a better job with that. It's a 48 minute proposition for us."
Here are more keys to tonight's game:
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Wizards have been one of the more difficult teams to match up against because they have so many scoring options among players who've shown a willingness to share the ball . . . a lot. Washington averages 23.1 assists per game, which ranks seventh in the NBA. It has also allowed them to have a roster that includes seven different players who average at least 10 points per game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo vs. John Wall
The point-guard battles keep getting tougher and tougher for Rondo. Wall has had a breakout season, not only individually but also in terms of becoming this team's leader. As Rondo looks to re-establish himself as an elite-level point guard, Wall represents one of the up-and-coming stars of the NBA who's cramming his way into a very crowded perch as one of the league's premier point guards.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jeff Green
Having played on the same Verizon Center floor with Georgetown, there is indeed a comfort level here for Green that doesn't exist anywhere else. The last time he was in town, he lit up the Wizards p for a game-high 39 points as Boston escaped with a 113-111 overtime win in January.
STAT TO TRACK: More than 24 percent of the Wizards' offense comes from the 3-point shot. When you shoot it the way they do, that makes sense. Washington has connected on 38.7 percent of its 3s this season, which is tops among teams in the East and trails only the red-hot San Antonio Spurs (40.2 percent) overall.